This 3,000-foot-long pier was built during World War I, and has served as a ballroom, a training center for navy pilots during World War II, and a satellite campus of the University of Illinois. Now, it’s Chicago’s top tourist draw (and it does feel touristy). The pier combines carnival rides (including a Ferris Wheel), climbing walls, food court, and restaurants, and the boat dock is a launching point for an array of lake tours. If you’re not with kids, Chicago Shakespeare Theater (tel. 312/595-5600; www.chicagoshakes.com on the pier puts on impressive shows, and the views of the lake are quite nice. But the truth is, locals without kids tend to stay away (unless visitors ask to go). 

Navy Pier Tip: Normal operating hours on Navy Pier change seasonally and vary with different holidays. It always opens at 10am and stays open until 10pm Sunday through Thursday and midnight Friday and Saturday in summer. In cooler months, it closes earlier, so be sure to call or check online for details (tel. 800/595 PIER [7437]; www.navypier.org).

If you haven’t been to Navy Pier in a few years (or ever) now’s a good time to revisit. There’s been an impressive effort to bring more local restaurants and bars to the pier, so you can walk right past Bubba Gump and Jimmy Buffet’s Margaritaville and opt for a “cheezborger” at Billy Goat or dive into deep dish at Giordano’s. A good time to visit is on summer nights when fireworks are overhead (Wed at 9:30pm and Sat at 10:15pm). Grab a drink at the Miller Lite Beer Garden, where there’s free, live music, and settle in for an alfresco evening. Find details at www.navypier.org.

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1. Shoreline Sightseeing Water Taxi: The best way to arrive at Navy Pier is by boat.

2. Olive Park

Roam the most scenic sliver of parkland in the city. Fronted by a small beach, Olive Park is beloved by adults for its lovely city and lake vistas, and by kids, who have a perfect vantage point for spotting the various boats that ply the waters of our Great Lake.

Time: 30 min. Just north and west of Navy Pier, 511 N. Columbus Dr.; tel. 312/742-PLAY (7529); www.chicagoparkdistrict.com

3. Polk Bros Park

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Just south of Olive Park is another fantastic park, this one with two stages for movies and plays and an enormous fountain for frolicking.

Time: 30 min. Just south and west of Navy Pier, 600 E. Grand Ave. tel. 312/742-PLAY (7529); www.chicagoparkdistrict.com.

4. Chicago Children’s Museum

This three-story museum is a big draw, with areas designed especially for children up to age 11—including babies and toddlers. Don’t miss Dinosaur Expedition, which re-creates an expedition to the Sahara, allowing kids to conduct scientific research and dig for the bones of an African dinosaur. WaterWays teaches about the uses and benefits of water resources, and a tri-level Schooner is open for kids to climb from the crow’s nest to the gangplank.

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Time: 2 hrs. On Navy Pier, 700 E. Grand Ave. tel. 312/527-1000. www.chicagochildrensmuseum.org. Admission: $15; seniors $14; under age 1 free; free admission Thurs 5–8pm (for all) and first Sun of every month (for ages 15 and under). Daily 10am–5pm (Thurs until 8pm). Closed Thanksgiving and Christmas.

5. Crystal Gardens

Rest your feet and soak up the tropical atmosphere in this relatively quiet six-story glass atrium, home to 70 full-size palm trees, dancing fountains, and other flora. Time: 10 min. Free admission.

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6. Ferris Wheel: Year-round you can zip around 200 feet in the air in the enclosed gondolas of the Centennial Ferris Wheel. Chicago is, after all, where the first-ever Ferris Wheel debuted, and this modern version offers incredible views. Time: 15 min., longer at peak times. $18 adults, $13 kids 3–11, free under 3. 

Carousel and Light Tower: This colorful work of art features 36 hand-painted animals, and scenes from Navy Pier’s history. (Riders must be 42 inches or taller.) Tickets include a ride on the Light Tower, which climbs up, up, up, and then drops to the sound of screams. Time: 25 min., longer at peak times. $9 (includes Light Tower). Operates May–Oct.

Climbing Wall: Little monkeys (40 lb. and up), attached to a rope for safety, can scramble up this 24-foot outdoor climbing wall. Time: 15 min. $9. Operates May–Oct.

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Pepsi Wave Swinger: Go round and round in circles on this enormous mechanical swing—the kind you’d find at a carnival—and soak in the Lake Michigan blue views. Time: 15 min. $9 (includes Light Tower). Operates May–Oct.

7. Seadog Speedboat Rides

If your kids love speed, they’ll love Seadog’s 30-minute thrill ride on the lake. Racing south along the shoreline, you’ll hear a bit about the city’s skyline, but mostly the captain will crank the music and turbo-charged engines. Enjoy the spray from the lake! Find the bright yellow speedboats across from the Ferris wheel. Other Seadog cruises are also available, including a slower-moving 75-minute architectural cruise.

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Time: 30 min. tel. 866/636-7377. www.seadogcruises.com. $28 adults, $22 children 3–12, free for children 2 and under.

8. IMAX Theater

This updated 300-seat theater with its six-story screen is another big draw. You’ll find everything from the latest Hollywood blockbusters to specially made 3-D films. Even better: the seats recline and you can grab a beer from the bar for the show.

Time: 45–130 min., depending on the show. $17–$19 adults, $15–$18 seniors, $15–$16 children 2–12.

Take a break: Get your camera ready and head to Original Rainbow Cone for a treat of the same name: a cone stacked sky-high with chocolate, strawberry, Palmer House (vanilla with cherries and walnuts), pistachio, and orange sherbet. It’s a classic South Side treat that dates back to 1926, but this outpost is much more recent to Navy Pier. Kiosk is on the south side of Navy Pier, across from Riva Restaurant. $.

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Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.